Clash of Extremes

Had a ridiculous day today, money wise, and witnessed first-hand some of the polarity of Bangladesh. Had to go to the bank to change some money in to Taka, only fifty quid’s worth, but a lot in Bangladesh, equivalent to a month’s wages for nearly half the population. Felt quite rich, like a Bideshi (foreigner) walking around with it in my pocket.

The little area (about half a square mile) where VSO are based, Lalmatia, is a rectangular shape surrounded by big roads and two of the sides are minted with foreign investment – so I went in to a branch of South Asia bank [I should point out that I hate, loathe, can’t stand, queuing in banks] and enjoyed the full Banking experience – queued for 15 minutes with lots of people pushing in front of me to be told I had to go upstairs. There was no-one upstairs so I left in a huff and went next door to the HSBC. Queued for another 15 minutes to get a piece of paper that I had to fill in and take to another queue – by this point I was already steaming. And then the third queue wasn’t taking too long, until the guy in front of me, who looked like a normal middle-class Bengali, polo shirt and trousers, went to the counter and withdrew Five Thousand Pounds – English sterling – right in front of me, more money than I have in the world to my name. He wanted it all counted properly so it took ages, and then finally, when I was going apoplectic with boredom and frustration and jealousy, he took out a hold-all and Mafia style just started taking bundles of Bengali notes, all brand new and in big inch-high stacks in to the hold-all. Must have been literally half a million Taka in their, which is close to forty grand sterling.

I then had to go to the teller and exchange my fifty quid, feeling like Oliver bloody Twist. Whole process took nearly an hour as well.

Then later on the afternoon I went with Tom to the post office to get some stamps. In contrast to shiny bright air-conditioned ‘World’s Local Bank’ HSBC, the post office is old, peeling, shabby, smells of piss, is lit by solitary candles and had one assistant behind the long row of desks, with another five people sitting in the back seemingly doing nothing (typical in Bangladesh), although one had a massive rifle.

We bought the stamps but got our change back minus 20 Taka, about 13p. It was sort of complicated maths (14 stamps of one denomination, plus 17 stamps of another), and there was no calculator, so we tried various ways of expressing the equation and showing that she’d got her sums wrong – I know it sounds pathetic but we were in a bad mood after being fleeced by the Rickshaw driver and we’re generally fed up of being over-charged everywhere in this country – so we tried to make a point this time and insist on getting our correct change.

But she kept on getting this extra 20 from nowhere. After a few minutes though she related and gave me the correct amount back, 252, and then indicated that she wanted to keep the 2. It was only then that we realised that in fact the 20 Taka that she was trying to keep might have been a commission/tip/little-bit-extra for her personally. And then obviously we felt really bad.

It’s very difficult to second-guess what’s cultural practice and what’s not, and this time we probably got it totally wrong – so I hope my post-cards didn’t go in the bin after we left. But writing about it now, having been stuck behind more cash than I’ve ever seen in my life today, and then also stuck haggling over 13p in some concrete hulk of a post-office – both places no more than 5 mins walk from each other – you can’t help but gasp at the extremes.

The poor of Bangladesh got their own back though, almost instantly – after leaving the post office we bought some oranges and I’ve just worked out we totally got our pants pulled down over the price…I’ll never be a millionaire – but that might be no bad thing.


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